In order to appreciate The Queen is Dead: A Classic Album Under Review at face value, you have to make a few concessions. Firstly, you have to agree prior to viewing that the Smiths were one of the best bands of the ‘80s (if not ever). Secondly, you have to agree that a DVD featuring talking heads (no, not David Byrne and company…although that’d be awesome) spewing hyperbole like it’s never been better, would be the best mode for appreciating the band’s third album, The Queen is Dead.
If you’re willing to make those leaps, then The Queen is Dead: A Classic Album Under Review will seem like a masterpiece. Otherwise, you’ll be left scratching you’re head as to how there could possibly exist a two-hour movie about an album that was at most a moderate hit.
The Queen is Dead: A Classic Album Under Review was commissioned as part of a British rockumentary series that has profiled the likes of Joy Division, Captain Beefheart, Patti Smith, and The Velvet Underground, and classic albums like OK Computer, Back in Black, and Physical Graffiti. In fact, they even profiled The Smiths’ entire career back in 2006, and now decided that The Queen is Dead would make for a good edition to their A Classic Album Under Review series.
Billed as a “visual review” of the album, the film dissects The Queen is Dead track-by-track, gathering up people like Tony Wilson (of Factory Records fame), “fifth Smith” Craig Gannon, Suede frontman Brett Anderson, Street, academics like Gavin Hopps and Johnny Rogan who have written books about the band, and former NME editor Len Browne, to talk shop about the Smiths at the time of the album’s release, and more importantly, fawn over every song and single the band ever put out. (The film claims to have special features, but those are limited to contributor biographies, a quiz about the album, and a small featurette with Smiths producer Stephen Street).
After briefly establishing where the Smiths were creatively prior to the album (at the peak of their powers, natch), and the tumult in band relations (bassist Andy Rourke’s heroin addiction, Morrissey’s blabbing to the press), the film then discusses the indie label politics surrounding the release of the album, and is easily the most interesting part of the film. At the time of the release, the band was arguing with Rough Trade about promotion, and was considering jumping to the majors.
Supposedly, “Frankly, Mr. Shankly”, the album’s second track, is about their label boss.
For this portion, Wilson drops in to talk about how the Smiths “saved” British indie music in 1982, by signing (and then staying) with Rough Trade distributors instead of going to EMI. Wilson, ever the self-promoter, can’t resist talking about how the British indie scene started when Joy Division (a band on Wilson’s label) opted to sign with him instead of RCA, thereby really starting British indie, which the Smiths continued. It’s both informative and shameless, and it marks at least the second time this year that a Wilson interview stole the show in a documentary on DVD (check Joy Division, for proof.)
Unfortunately, Wilson’s braggadocio doesn’t carry over to the other contributors, as most come off sounding like nothing but Smiths PR representatives. The most tepid of these contributors is Browne, who often comes off as not much more than a Smiths fan-boy finally happy someone asked him his opinion of the band. He could have used a thesaurus while filming his part, because he said “extraordinary” at least 765 times during his 15-20 minutes on screen (I’m clearly estimating). By the time he’s appeared on screen for the seventh time saying the track they’re talking about now is “the best track the Smiths ever put out,” or “the greatest pop song of the last 25 years or so,” you just want to shake him and break his worn copy of the album across his head.
The portions with people actually connected to the band are also disappointing. The major questions revolving around the album (Why the weird aesthetic choices on tracks like “Big Mouth Strikes Again”? Where did they get the ideas for the riffs? What’s Morrisey’s inspiration?) are left to be speculated upon by Street and Gannon, since none of the band members were actually interviewed for the film. Street doesn’t add much to the discourse; most of his contributions to the album seemed to be spur of the moment decisions that were made along with Johnny Marr and Morrissey, who naturally can’t say their piece.
The track-by track analysis gets a little mundane at times; how many different opinions can you get from Smiths lovers about the same song? Every segment invariably starts with one head saying “This track sounded like (really great old song by Velvet Underground crossed with Rolling Stones),” with another head (often journalist/musician Douglas Noble) playing the instrumental part before saying how great the track was. How about the flaccid closer “Some Girls are Bigger Than Others”? Well, that one’s amazing. The mostly lame “Vicar in a Tutu”? It’s a bloody masterpiece in the order of the album’s truly great middle triptych, “Cemetery Gates”, “Big Mouth”, and “The Boy with a Thorn in His Side”.
The album has been deemed one of the classic albums of the ‘80s, but is it really worth the canonization that it’s been given here? If you have a set of unbiased ears, you’d have to acknowledge that the album has some faults (like that it drags at the beginning, there are a few duds), and for these heads to suggest otherwise is a bad case of myopia. When it comes down to it, you have to ask yourself, who is this film for? Is it for people who have never heard of the Smiths? Why would this be there first move? Why not just buy the album?
In actuality, this whole film is solely for people who’d like their fandom in the Smiths affirmed by a motion picture (not unlike the Joy Division fans that flocked to Control). This film is meant solely as a cash-grab for the producers looking to bank on a few loyal fans who’d likely shell out for a 115 minute reminder that The Queen is Dead is a good album.